Seeing the Light

🕔Apr 07, 2011

If you’ve spent any time cruising or fishing on the North Coast, or maybe just taken the BC Ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, you’re familiar with the sight of lighthouses: clusters of white buildings trimmed in red, clinging dramatically to otherwise inhospitable rocky outcrops. Their names, like Boat Bluff, Dryad Point, or Egg Island, are memorable.

Although their existence seems romantic, their purposes are myriad and practical: among other things, their keepers maintain aids to navigation, provide assistance to mariners in distress, and collect weather data. Unfortunately, it is lighthouse keepers themselves who face a distressful situation these days: the potential (some say inevitable) de-staffing of many of the remaining manned lightstations along the coast.

There have been lighthouses on Canada’s west coast for 151 years, since Fisgard Lighthouse was built at the entrance of Victoria’s Esquimalt harbour in 1860. Historically, lighthouses had to have somebody there round the clock: to keep an eye on things, to tend the oil lamp in case it went out, to polish the parabolic glass that reflected the warning beacon across the sea, and much more.

But the inexorable advances in technology meant that, over time, fewer lighthouses needed a keeper. Electric lights and prisms replaced smoky kerosene lanterns. Machines, computers, and satellites could collect and transmit weather data that previously a human being would have radioed to the mainland. Because of these technological improvements and the potential to save tax-payers’ dollars, the Canadian Coast Guard, like many other coastal agencies around the world, began to systematically de-staff lighthouses in the 1970s. By the mid-nineties, there was only a single manned light station remaining in the Central and Arctic Region, the Quebec Region and the Maritimes Region (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island). Today, there are 23 staffed lightstations remaining in the Newfoundland and Labrador Region, and 27 in the Pacific Region.

Tempest of concern
By and large, the 50 remaining manned lighthouses remain that way only due to a strong public response to the late-nineties push to automate and de-staff. But in 2009 the Coast Guard again put forward a plan to de-staff as many lighthouses as could reliably be automated—in other words, all of them.

One of the main points of this plan is the fact that many of the duties keepers have taken on over the years do not fall under the Coast Guard’s mandate. People are no longer required on a full-time basis simply to maintain aids to marine navigation, since many of those lights and foghorns could be fully automated as hundreds of light stations and buoys have been for years. Savings of about 12 million dollars would purportedly come from keepers’ salaries as well as not having to maintain the far-flung complexes of buildings; no more costly helicopter flights to refuel generators and restock pantries. Sturdy metal frames rarely needing painting or re-siding would efficiently house solar-powered LED lights and signals as dependably—if less picturesquely—than the traditional white towers with their distinctive red trim. No jobs were slated to be lost; instead, the de-staffing would take place as keepers retired or as temporary positions expired.

However, as in previous decades, the announcement of the Coast Guard’s 2009 plan to fully automate west-coast lighthouses created a tempest of protest and concern from keepers, commercial and recreational boaters, coastal municipalities, and government officials from Vancouver to Prince Rupert. Many rejected the idea that automated weather stations delivered adequate data, citing, for example, the need for a pair of eyes to detect fog on the water. “Hecate Strait is recognized as the third worst body of water in the world,” wrote the commodore of Prince Rupert’s North Coast Sailing Association; “We need the excellent services that lighthouses provide to plan our trips, get updates while on our trips, and keep us SAFE!”

The question of safety was repeatedly raised: an automated light station would not be able to report an emergency flare sighting, or to radio search-and-rescue when boaters were in danger and unable to raise a Mayday themselves. The negative response was such that in September, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea put the Coast Guard’s de-staffing program on hold until a report on the nature and value of lightkeepers’ additional duties could be compiled, and in March of 2010 asked the Canadian Senate’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to perform this examination.

Seeing the light
More public trepidation was evident as the Senate announced plans in early November 2010 to visit stake-holding communities in order to meet with user groups; the press report detailing the locations and times of west-coast meetings between November 16th and 20th was only released on November 10th. Senator Bill Rompkey, the chairman of the committee, cited the Senate’s stringent budget approval process for the short time-frame and the small venues, and those hoping to see large numbers at meetings in towns such as Prince Rupert and Campbell River were worried that not enough time had been given to get the word out. The Canadian Lightkeepers Association was publicly sceptical that the public would have enough opportunity to air their apprehensions.

Despite this, well-attended community forums took place, and five senators, including BC skier and Olympian Nancy Greene Raine, visited lighthouses, spoke with keepers and Coast Guard officials, and recorded the public’s concerns. This past December, the Standing Senate Committee submitted the first of two reviews (the second will focus on heritage lighthouses) that stated unequivocally that the Coast Guard should immediately halt plans to remove lightkeepers from lighthouses, and proceed only on a case-by-case basis, and only after comprehensive cost-benefit analyses had been completed.

It’s not surprising that the Senate report is titled Seeing the Light. The Coast Guard’s premise was that de-staffing and automating lighthouses would be an opportunity to save money in the years to come, but the Senate committee’s report and recommendations indicate they found little evidence of this. But the report does specifically take into account the fact that much of the work lighthouse keepers do doesn’t necessarily fall under the Coast Guard’s mandate; for example, BC lightkeepers record sightings of migrating whales and sea turtles for the BC Cetacean Sightings Network, and collect data for other government organizations such as Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada. With that in mind, the Senate Committee recommended cost-sharing among government agencies should be explored to offset the financial commitment of keeping lighthouses staffed.

A very high price
That being said, one line of the Senate report is particularly powerful: “Any cost savings realized from de-staffing lighthouses will come at a very high price—that is the risk of loss of life.” Whale-counting and ecological data-collection aside, what the members of the Senate Committee came to clearly understand from the hundreds of letters and presentations from private citizens, international shipping organizations, coastal aviators, and even the Coast Guard “Santa” was that staffed lighthouses increase the safety of those working and recreating on and above the water. Although the Canadian Coast Guard appears to under-appreciate its employees, the recent Senate investigation demonstrates that lightkeepers are highly valued by those who depend on their presence along the coast, and one hopes that the Senate’s recommendations can shine a light towards maintaining, and perhaps even increasing, their many contributions.